Across parts of the British countryside, people are once again living alongside beavers, wild boar and white-tailed eagles. These keystone species were extirpated around 500, 400 and 200 years ago respectively, but have since reclaimed former territories. The Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) has been absent from the landscape for more than 1000 years, while the wolf (Canis lupus) and brown bear (Ursus arctos) have also been lost. For so long, the British countryside has been devoid of large carnivores and any memory of living alongside anything larger than a fox or badger has been lost. Recent research has shown that restoring apex predators could bring ecological and economic benefits, but their return would undoubtedly bring challenges and risks. Here, we will explore these issues with regards to the Eurasian lynx, the most suitable candidate for carnivore restoration in Britain.
Making Room for Predators
Predators across Europe are making a comeback, much of it through natural recolonization. Wolves have recently been spotted in both the Netherlands and Belgium while lynx have once again spread across Scandinavia and Russia. In areas where the Eurasian lynx have been unable to recover on their own, for example in areas in central and western Europe where the landscape is heavily fragmented, ambitious reintroduction projects have facilitated their return. People in Germany, Switzerland and France are once sharing their forests with the Eurasian lynx. Britain and Ireland now remain the last countries in Europe whose landscapes are devoid of large predators.
Living Alongside Carnivores in the UK
The return of species that have not long disappeared is less challenging than those species that experience a prolonged period of time between extinction and reintroduction. The return of the lynx in Britain would have the largest time gap of any reintroduction project. While studies exploring habitat suitability and prey densities suggest that the Eurasian lynx could thrive in Scotland, the question remains whether the cultural landscape is ready. Rural communities have lost the cultural memory of living alongside a carnivore and would have to re-learn how to coexist with a top predator.
Though attacks on people are virtually unheard of, lynx do pose a threat to livestock, in particular, sheep. However, in many areas where lynx and sheep coexist, depredation of sheep is uncommon. Protection against other predators like wolves and bears in areas like Romania and Croatia, through fencing or livestock guardian dogs, provide effective protection against any threat from the much smaller lynx. Of the areas where lynx and sheep coexist, Norway experiences the highest rates of sheep depredation. In Britain, like in many areas across Europe, sheep are grazed in open areas protected by fences. In Norway, sheep spend the summer and autumn grazing in woodland areas with little human intervention. Since lynx are an ambush predator, keeping sheep in open pastures protected by fences, as opposed to the Norwegian approach, seems to provide highly effective protection against lynx. Compensation payments and livestock guardian dogs provide other opportunities to manage any potential conflict with lynx in Britain.
The Ghost of the Forest
There are approximately 10,000 Eurasian lynx living across Europe’s landscapes. The lynx is the third largest land predator in Europe, around the size of a large dog (17-29kg), with only the wolf and brown bear being larger. Typically a forest specialist, lynx are highly elusive and very difficult to see in the wild. Unlike other lynx species, like the bobcat (Lynx rufus) and Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus), which prefer to predate on lagomorhps (rabbits and hares) and small birds, the Eurasian lynx is large enough to predate large game. Across much of their range, roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) are their preferred prey species. From the forests of Russia to the rocky mountain slopes of the Himalayas, lynx rely on habitat complexity, like shrubs and bushes, fallen timber, rocks or whatever else it can find, for cover for successful ambush hunting. They are highly efficient predators and maintain high kill rates at very low densities of roe deer.
If you have enjoyed reading about this elusive cat, we also recommend our Tracking Lynx in the Southern Carpathians article.
As apex predators declined and disappeared across their range, top-down control of herbivores went with them. The natural world is now experiencing a herbivore problem across many parts of the globe. High densities of herbivores brings challenges for biodiversity conservation, forestry human and more. Restoring predators has been proposed as a possible solution to this problem.
Through both consumptive and non-consumptive effects, lynx could help manage populations of native roe deer in Britain. Consumptive effects refers to the direct numerical effect of predation, while non-consumptive effects describe their effects on prey behaviour, morphology and physiology. Their impact on the larger red deer (Cervus elaphus) would likely be small as they typically prefer roe deer in areas where both species of deer coexist. What’s more, red deer have adapted to living in the open landscapes of Britain, which is unsuitable hunting habitat for lynx. When hunting roe deer, lynx do not show significant prey-selectivity, often taking prime adult of breeding age. This means their predation effect would likely be additive rather than compensatory because they don’t preferentially select older and weaker individuals that would otherwise succumb to other forms of mortality. Lynx could also control roe deer populations through the landscape of fear their presence would likely create. However, unlike wolves, lynx are an elusive predator and the degree to which they could create a landscape of fear is unclear. While lynx would likely have an impact on roe deer populations in Britain through these mechanisms, whether this would be significant enough to restore denuded landscapes is another matter.
Nature Based Tourism
Besides the ecological effect of lynx restoration, returning lynx to Britain could bring economic benefits in the form of nature-based tourism. Large carnivores across Europe provide opportunities for nature-based tourism through tracking, photography, wildlife-viewing expeditions etc. While their shy nature and low densities makes the lynx Europe’s most elusive predator, their presence in the landscape could still provide opportunities for nature-based tourism. Predator tracking and adventure holidays are already taking place across Europe without being able to guarantee predators sightings. Indeed, for tourists that are interested in a wilderness experiences, it could be enough just to know they are sharing the landscape with a predator.
A Future in Britain
The return of lynx to Britain is as much a social issue as it is an ecological one. While studies suggest that populations of Eurasian lynx could live in Scotland’s forests, its not yet known if there is sufficient local support for the return of this top predator. Further work is needed to assess local attitudes to lynx and identify the concerns of those people that would need to learn to coexist with a carnivore. Successful reintroductions of Eurasian lynx to other European countries show that it’s possible to restore this beautiful felid to de-wilded landscapes. Meanwhile, communities across Europe are learning to live alongside an even more challenging predator, the wolf.
Sources & further reading
- “The Lynx and Us” - Scotland: The Big Picture
- “Using Prey Densities to Estimate the Potential Size of Reintroduced Populations of Eurasian Lynx” - Science Direct
- “Improving Reintroduction Success in Large Carnivores through Individual-Based Modelling: How to Reintroduce Eurasian Lynx (Lynx Lynx) to Scotland” - Science Direct
- “A Potential Habitat Network for the Eurasian Lynx Lynx Lynx in Scotland” - Wiley Online Library
- “Plan to return lynx to UK receives fresh boost” - The Guardian
- “Lynx” - Rewilding Britain
- “Setting lynx wild in Britain could cut deer numbers, head of Natural England says” - The Telegraph